Many Environmentalisms from New York to Kabul, from the Past to the Present

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Stephen Melkisethian
Many more environmentalisms exist globally than those that were represented at the September 2014 People’s Climate March in New York City.

We are proud to have marched side-by-side with approximately 400,000 others on the streets of New York City in the People’s Climate March in September 2014. We are less proud that we squirmed through a police barricade on 42nd Street to enter a Cold Stone Creamery at Times Square in the midst of the march. When we re-entered the procession—ice cream bowls in one hand, plastic spoons in the other—we marched for climate justice with ice cream in our mouths: a strange display of 21st century environmentalism, indeed! A few days later, after returning home respectively to Brooklyn and Vermont, we emailed news stories about the march to one another, including an article about the trash that climate marchers left behind on the streets of Manhattan.1 We not-so-proudly contributed two paper bowls and two plastic spoons to that mountain of rubbish.

As absurd as it sounds, our stop at Cold Stone reveals deeper and more complex worlds of past and future environmentalisms—a mosaic of narratives that rival the rainbow coalition on display in the march itself. Hidden from the streets that day were the workers inside the Cold Stone who made our snacks. Their environmentalism may be the struggle for adequate nutrition and housing in a city in which most service workers make less than a living wage, where calls for a US $15/hour wage are getting louder as workers organize, picket, and participate in walk-outs and sit-ins. Then, there are the sanitation workers who picked up our Cold Stone trash. They know New York’s waste problems better than anyone: what eight million people’s trash looks like in sum, and how it smells, and where it goes after the truck pulls away. Then, there are the dairy farmers who produced the milk that became our ice cream. Their environmentalism may focus on issues of economic survival in America’s changing rural landscapes: how to afford agricultural land amidst sprawl, questions of land use and regulations, and how to find a market for their products where local businesses are eviscerated by supermarkets and chain stores. Behind our snack are many hidden struggles—many environmentalisms—not all represented by the uniform message of the climate march. Or, to put it another way, we think Naomi Klein’s phrase, “this changes everything,” might be retooled as, “everything changes everything.” Instead of calling for worldwide intersectional solidarity in support of climate justice, we believe it is equally important for climate activists to heed the call of other struggles, other environmentalisms. The fight of workers, women, farmers, indigenous peoples, and so many others—not just for survival, but for vibrant and resilient communities—represents the many manifestations of environmentalism across the world.2

We are, respectively, a historian (Gregory) and a scholar of environmental studies and policy (Marjeela); a professor and a student; a native New Yorker and a lifelong citizen of Kabul, Afghanistan. In this essay, we seek to articulate the variety of bottom-up environmentalisms that sprout from New York to Kabul, both historically and in the present. Urban environmental issues, particularly water pollution and sanitation, absorb our attention as we consider what economically marginalized peoples face in their home and work environments, and reflect upon the unique potential of the “environmentalism of the poor” to shift conversations about environmental action in this country and beyond.3

The struggle for human rights is, actually, so often a struggle over the environment: access to food and clean water, sanitation and hygiene, adequate housing, community control over land and water as a commons. Look at Afghanistan—major environmental issues include water pollution and scarcity, deforestation, urban pollution, soil degradation, loss of biodiversity, air pollution, and food insecurity, all of which have put most Afghans at risk.4 Afghanistan is a geo-political soccer ball, kicked from one foreign interest to another, and, because of this political instability, the environment is not a governmental priority and therefore air pollution is insufferable, urban waste is increasing, and access to clean water is an urgent problem. The deforestation caused by three decades of war has denuded forested lands, contributing to environmental pollution and land degradation.5 All these crises are interrelated, and all amount to an attack upon Afghanistan’s most vulnerable citizens. Those who already suffer from poverty and other structural inequalities (such as ethnic discrimination, gender inequity, political corruption, and rampant nepotism), are disproportionately affected by these environmental crises.

As a landlocked country with an arid to semi-arid climate, water pollution and unequal distribution of potable water is one of Afghanistan’s most pressing environmental and human rights issues. Why does water matter? The following quote from poet W. H. Auden sums it up: “thousands have lived without love, no one without water.”6 There is a strong connection and interdependence between public health and environmental health. Until a country commits itself to attaining an adequate level of public and environmental health, it is unrealistic to expect its people to focus on social and political reform, much less to participate in global forms of environmental activism. First comes water. Water plays an essential role in the livelihoods of Afghanistan’s farmers. Irrigation water is a valuable resource, especially during the hot, dry summers and years of periodic drought. Simultaneously, due to increases in population density in urban areas and decreased water availability, people in the city and rural communities are progressively exploiting various sources of surface water and mining the water tables via deep wells. Afghan people need access to clean water, not only to drink, but also for agricultural production. Agriculture plays a crucial role in Afghanistan’s economy, accounting for 25 percent of the country’s GDP in 2012.7 After the fall of the Taliban regime, in the years between 2001 and 2015, more than 5.8 million Afghan immigrants returned home from abroad.8 In the past ten years alone, Kabul has grown from 700,000 people to somewhere between 3.6 million and 5 million residents.9,10 Despite this growth, Kabul lacks adequate urban environmental policies. Therefore, due to urban crowding, urban centers such as Kabul contain the highest concentrations of air pollution and waste.

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Lauras Eye
A young girl collects garbage off of the street in Kabul. Impoverished children in the city are exposed to severe health threats as they search through trash for anything of value.

The environmental history of water access, urban pollution, and human poverty in 19th century New York presents an interesting and potentially productive parallel to that of 21st century Kabul. New York’s water problems began with the Collect Pond, a surface-level, spring-fed lake that once existed in lower Manhattan. The lake was used as a sink for the deposition of human and animal wastes, even as it served as Manhattan’s main source of fresh drinking water. When the pond was drained and filled at the start of the 19th century, this site of environmental pollution became home to a notorious slum, the Five Points, where impoverished Irish working-class immigrants and African-American families lived amidst the detritus of an old dumping ground.11 In Kabul, the most disenfranchised, such as internally displaced Afghan refugees, similarly live dangerously close to sites of environmental degradation with horribly poor sanitation.12 Polluted areas of the Kabul River and dump sites around the city have become hubs for impoverished children, who are exposed to health threats as they sift through piles of trash to find metal for selling, and paper and plastics to use as fuel for their homes. On the other hand, a lack of police surveillance combined with visible pollution in the Kabul River has kept the general public away while attracting drug addicts who find abandoned spots, such as underneath bridges, to do drugs.13

Back in New York, a water-born disease, cholera, was the scourge of 19th century residents, although it affected poor people with much greater vehemence than it did the rich. Improvements in urban sanitation finally brought the disease under control, but change came only alongside racist and sexist diagnoses of immigrants and the poor as ‘dirty’ and ‘uncivilized.’14 In Kabul today, due to the lack of urban sanitation and sustainable waste management infrastructure, pathogens find their way into the surface water, contaminating the water that people drink. In developing countries around the globe, including Afghanistan, there are increased pathogen concentrations in wastewater that may contribute to higher rates of endemic gastrointestinal disease.15 Therefore, improving sanitation will have immediate benefits for public health. As Mike Davis notes in Planet of Slums, sanitation is also a feminist issue. In a city without adequate toilets, women must go out at night in groups to relieve themselves, always fearful of voyeurism and the threat of sexual violence by men.16 Sanitation is a feminist issue in Kabul as well, where most young girls are expected to do the home chores at the expense of pursuing an education.17 The gendering of labor, from 19th century New York to 21st century Kabul, determines that issues of cleanliness, water, and urban sanitation are labeled as ‘women’s issues.’ As such, these problems are frequently excluded from the environmentalism propagated by men.

Lastly, in 19th century New York, poor people relied on the city’s rivers and estuaries as a fishing commons, extracting clams, crabs, and other food from the sea to supplement meager wages. As rivers became polluted, however, much of this ‘natural food’ was either extirpated or poisoned. On the way to Jalalabad, along the upper reaches of the Kabul River, especially by the Mahipar Dam, it is an old tradition for Afghan travelers to stop by roadside restaurants to eat fresh fish from the river. However, those fish are now disappearing. The causes of this fishery crisis are unclear, but decreasing water levels, increasing pollution, and inadequate management of the Mahipar Dam are the likely culprits.18

As we look from New York to Kabul, from the past to the present, it is clear that different communities across both space and time have faced, and continue to face, widely disparate environmental problems. It follows that there must be many different environmental solutions, and not just one top-down, catch-all answer. Even as we remember our Cold Stone ice cream snack in New York City, we are reminded that in Kabul, ice cream vendors hand out wooden, rather than plastic, spoons. Local practices, even on so small a scale as the neighborhood ice cream shop, offer environmental solutions that call our attention to new ways of thinking about the human relationship with nature. In our review of these many environmentalisms, we humbly propose the following solutions for rethinking ‘environmentalism’ in the 21st century.

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Spozhmai Atash / Canada in Afghanistan
An Afghan woman cooks bread in her home. Sanitation remains a feminist issue in Afghanistan, where women are still expected to do the home chores. This premise is frequently excluded from the environmentalisms promoted by men.

First, environmentalists must focus on human problems. People who are struggling for survival are not empowered to engage in more abstract issues such as ‘climate change,’ at least not until immediate environmental crises are solved. This is as true for New York’s working poor as it is in Kabul’s slums. While conditions and contexts vary, poor people’s environmentalisms demand our attention in every community. Environmentalists should focus on creating systems of support and solidarity that empower local communities to diagnose and tackle their own problems. This means supporting grassroots, horizontal democratic decision-making and governance structures, so that traditionally marginalized voices—such as those of women, workers, and ethnic minorities— are heard alongside the voices of elite men. To take this approach is to recognize that, for most of the world’s people, there are more pressing issues than just climate change. Until poor and marginalized peoples can survive and thrive and raise their voices from a position of collective power, they will never be able to fully participate in ‘first world’ environmental actions. A grassroots approach means focusing on human solutions—the empowerment of everyday people—before those with means take action on behalf of so many voiceless others.

We want systemic change, not just humanitarianism. People do not need handouts: they need the tools, skills, and technical knowledge necessary for diagnosing environmental problems and achieving solutions in their own communities. We support community-based management principles that recognize the importance of local and indigenous knowledge, foster the democratic participation of all segments of society, and keep power in the hands of locals rather than outsiders. Humanitarianism presupposes that outsiders have the answers, and when they leave, local peoples remain dependent on that outside expertise. We believe, rather, that local people hold the answers, and that institutionalized educational, economic, and political inequalities are what stand in their way. Therefore, we echo Naomi Klein’s call for a ‘people’s shock’—a ‘blow from below’—but, we simultaneously recognize that most people are fighting for more basic human rights than just climate change, and that environmental solutions must start with the struggle of the oppressed for survival.

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South Bend Voice
Environmentalists must create systems of support to include the environmentalisms of people across space and experience, by empowering communities to achieve local solutions to local problems.

Finally, we believe that history and historians can play an important role in these conversations. The power of history is to show that environment means different things to different people, and mainstream environmentalism will not solve the world’s problems (and it may very well create some of them). The task of historians is to find out how people experienced the past. Similarly, the task of 21st century activists should be to find out how people relate to nature today, and how they care about it in their own lives. Before prescribing top-down solutions, we might look to history to see how well-intentioned environmentalists have screwed things up in the past. We might note how environmentalist efforts have too often sidelined women, people of color, and the poor. Historians are now identifying many environmentalisms, and recognizing the movements of marginalized peoples to effect change. We look to them for inspiration, in New York, in Kabul, and beyond.